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Review of Stephen North’s “Beneath The Mask”

Beneath The Mask is a recreation of a prior Stephen North story, a re-envisioning of his first book with the same title. Sergeant Alex Cray of the Florida National Guard is dealing with what appears to be a biological attack on the Tampa Bay area. He and the rest of the soldiers facing the situation have seen people dying from some sort of plague that leaves them with sores on their faces and a homicidal streak that borders on madness. It is clear that this situation is spreading to other parts of the country and globe and even more shocking, it is perhaps coming from something beyond our world.
Strange events unfold with little explanation around Alex. While the citizens in the area are desperate to survive, there are others who appear in the area that look human, though they seem transformed and almost alien in their physical perfection. Sergeant Cray is forced to kill to defend himself and the various people he comes into contact with that he feels are worth saving as things continue to deteriorate around him. At first he fears the plague that has permeated the area and like the rest of the soldiers, is supposed to continue wearing his MOPP suit-the protective bio-containment outfit that prevents airborne viruses from infecting you. But it doesn’t take him long to realize that life behind the mask is no longer worth living. After stripping his containment suit, Alex is forced to continue stripping away other masks that civilization has put in place for him. He puzzles over the deterioration of his and others humanity while seeking answers as to what the truth is behind the strange people and strange vessels that have arrived in the area that look like nothing anyone on earth could have created.
Beneath The Mask has been transformed from a traditional first day apocalyptic tale of survival into a story that combines elements of this and that of a futuristic thriller. The author wrote another story, The Drifter, which had a noir/Blade Runner type flavor to it, though it mostly takes place elsewhere and else when and there are hints here that these two sagas will be tied together in a series of adventures, as elements from the second book have bled through here, in Beneath The Mask.
Stephen North’s writing preference is typically first person, present tense, and this story is written in this format. While there are some challenges with this style, because the reader can only see what Alex sees and hears in each instance, it steeps you in the moment, dealing with everything the main character faces with no additional time to react. There is no time to debate whether to pull the trigger or to leave someone for dead when things are constantly shifting and moving all around you. The story is not driven by one particular objective, although Alex’s instant to instant reactions are shaped by the strange realities he has discovered and must come to grips with, which drives him to focus on certain objectives-most of which have to do with staying alive. His alliances are also driven by gut instinct and the desire to retain a kernel of humanity within him, even while he is forced to do mostly unspeakable things to keep himself and those he cares for alive.
The author has created the start of a rollicking adventure tale that has the potential to transcend timelines and realities. Alex does seem almost too reactionary in this story-pulled by outside forces in different directions on a constant basis, rather than focusing on anything beyond moment to moment survival. Of course, the author puts a steady flow of roadblocks in front of him to provide him with all sorts of adventures, but he is almost philosophically detached from one of the only overriding objectives he returns to throughout the book-the desire to see if his parents are still alive. Of course, there are far greater missions for Sergeant Cray to involve himself in, but I would have liked to see him push a little harder in an effort to achieve this objective. Despite this minor concern, the author has created an all-to-human hero that fails as much as he succeeds, still tries to do what is right even when nothing he does seems to matter, and still is able to fight to retain a grip on what makes him human even if at times there seems to be no good reason to do so anymore.
Beneath The Mask can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Beneath-Mask-Drifter-Book-1-ebook/dp/B00QL64P8A/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1421418407&sr=8-3&keywords=beneath+the+mask

Review of Eloise Knapp’s “The Undead Haze”

The Undead Haze is the follow up to the author’s first novel, The Undead Situation, where we were introduced to self-proclaimed sociopath, Cyrus V. Sinclair. Cyrus is the narrator here, as he was in the first book, and thus we get to see the world only through his eyes. His claim of being a sociopath are dampened from the get go here, even by his own admission. In reviewing the first novel, I made it clear that it was debatable whether he was truly a sociopath. But since the story is told by the main character, we only have his proclamation to go by as to whether it is true or not.
Here, it becomes clear that Cyrus’s feelings for Blaze, the woman he lost track of before the end of the first book, don’t jive with that of a true sociopath. It is more likely that Blaze is closer to a text book definition of sociopath, at least based on how she acted and reacted to others, including Cyrus, the first book. The majority of this novel is spent with Cyrus wanting to find Blaze because of the feelings he has developed for her. Naturally, because of the state the world is in, there are some tremendous perils brought on by both the living and the dead. Cyrus crosses paths with someone who has the potential to help him find Blaze, if she is still alive, though he will have to go through hell on earth in the process.
Much of the criticism I saw in reviews of the first novel were due to Cyrus’s proclamation that he was a sociopath when there were aspects of his personality that left that up for debate. Much of the criticism I have seen in reviews of this novel are due to the fact that Cyrus shows far more vulnerability and humanity than a sociopath ever would. He works hard to convince himself that he has no need for others, that he is still using them, and is purposefully callous on occasion, but he shows far more fear, a willingness to open himself up to others, and more of a desire to help others than ever before. Again, since both stories are told in first person, all the reader has to go on is Cyrus’s proclamations about himself, rather than based on any truth that may have been revealed had his story been told in third person. The only thing for certain is that Cyrus V. Sinclair is a bit more complicated than a one word description of his personality type.
The Undead Haze, is in some ways a more complicated story, like its protagonist has become, than the one found in the first book. Cyrus is forced further and further outside his comfort zone. He is beaten and bloodied for long stretches of this tale. He’s weak, vulnerable, and at the mercy of others who he must rely upon. He is obsessed with another person, feeling something akin to love, which becomes the driving force in his life. This is what drives this story and will likely determine whether a reader likes this book more, or less than the first one. Cyrus is still, for the most part, a disagreeable character, but one who is far more human than before. He questions whether or not what he seems to becoming is who he truly is, rather than the sociopath he believed himself to be in the past.
Naturally, this is a character driven story, with the events that unfold on its pages being secondary to how Cyrus experiences them. There are traditional zombie slow movers with a mix of fast movers (those that have recently turned) which are one threat to Cyrus, but they are not the worst danger for him. It the human dangers that are far worse.
The author’s writing has gotten sharper and she has nurtured Cyrus into something far more complex than the one dimensional, smug jerk he was in the first book. While in many ways he is still irredeemable, he has expanded greatly beyond what he was to begin with in this book. It will be interesting to see where he ends up going in the third act of his saga.
The Undead Haze can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Undead-Haze-Situation-Book-Volume/dp/1618680730/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1420788356&sr=1-2

Review of David Jacob Knight’s “The Phone Company”

The Tether. The name drums up an image of something that holds you in place, latches on to you, and links you to others that are also connected in a similar fashion. The Tether in The Phone Company is the name of the latest mobile device being offered by the eponymous organization to their customers. PCo, for short, didn’t make the Tether, but they have taken full advantage of its endless capabilities as a device to connect everyone to each other. Just sign up, get connected, and work to become one of the Top 12 of the PCo family. Its aps are remarkable, giving its customers almost magic-like abilities to peak into the world of their neighbors, to control machinery, and to retrieve virtually any information instantaneously.
PCo has set up shop in Cracked Rock, Montana, building a data center on the cemetery where the town founders have been buried. While there are protests about what they have done, most of the citizens are too excited about the free phones being offered to students and other members of the community to have a problem with it. Cracked Rock is a town that is hurting. Several years earlier a boy went on a shooting spree at the local middle school, tearing the town apart. While this was happening, Steve, one of the teachers in the high school, avoided his kids being victims because they were facing another nightmare at the local hospital: the death of Janice, his wife, due to lung cancer.
Steve and Bill, his best friend and a deputy sheriff in town, are about the only two members of the community not thrilled with the new Tethers and the increased presence of PCo. Both are given free Tethers as public servants, but Steve would rather stick with his old phone that both he and his wife used years before and Bill isn’t interested in agreeing to the background check the Tether requires to grant him access to all the neat law enforcement tools it has to offer.
It doesn’t take long for this thriller to migrate to more of a supernatural horror, with strange events occurring all around town. It seems that everyone is discovering unique aps on their phones, like JJ, Steve’s son, who discovers he can inhabit the bodies of soldiers and rebels doing battle in a variety of wars across the globe. Sarah, Steve’s daughter, realizes she has a popularity ap that not only gauges her popularity against the other girls in her high school, it also provides guidance on what she can do to claw her way to the top of the list.
If you have read the author’s previous work, The Pen Name, it becomes clear very quickly that both these tales inhabit the same eerie world. The mysterious publishing company from the first book pays a brief visit here, and the main character from that tale had been laid off from the phone company prior to being sucked into his own mystery. The author’s prior work seemed a bit more subtle as the world around the main character unraveled in bits and pieces. In Cracked Rock, things seem to tumble down the rabbit hole in a more abrupt fashion, though everyone seems fairly happy with the results. The mysterious Provider, who is behind the all-consuming need to be connected, is spoken about with a reverence bordering on religiously zealotry by the faithful.
This story, like its predecessor, has flavors of Lovecraft mixed in with King and begins as a thriller that migrates more into the realm of supernatural horror before the story is complete. The writing is solid though Steve, the main character, doesn’t feel as strongly developed as Ben was in The Pen Name. Perhaps because it felt like Steve didn’t seem to sense what was going wrong all too quickly in the pages of the story. He seems to be more of a passive reactionary to a great deal of what is happening, at least until everything has gone off the rails entirely. He is unhappy, discontented, but slow to engage with Graham, the ever present PCo representative, and all too willing to hope for the best.
Overall, The Phone Company is still a very intriguing story. It pokes and prods at how worthwhile it is to live in a world where we are hyper-connected to one another, where there is an ap for everything and our lives are on display for everyone via social media. We bemoan our loss of privacy and yet cannot look away, or stop contributing to the deluge of information shared with one another. The book takes that in a supernatural direction, turning the need for connection into a religious fervor that devours everyone who submits.
The Phone Company can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Phone-Company-David-Jacob-Knight/dp/1503361993/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1420306490&sr=8-1

Review of “At Hell’s Gates, Volume 1″

At Hell’s Gates is the initial horror volume in a series anthologies produced with the proceeds going to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. The overall theme of this series is general horror, but this volume leans heavily on zombie apocalypse related tales from authors with books already out on that subject matter. The stories told here are tied in with their other works, giving a short story that sometimes lies at the periphery of the world they have created or serves as an new slant on characters a reader of those works is already familiar with.
Overall, the work here is solid and the writing entertaining. This book serves more as a sampler platter of various author’s works rather than standalone tales except in a few cases, although little is lost in translation if you hadn’t read any of the books from the author’s bibliography. For example, I have read Stephen Kozeniewski’s work, The Ghoul Archipelago and his short here is based on the world we see in that novel, but I have not read anything from Stevie Kopas, but her tale of murder and insanity stands on its own quite well, though it is a part of a bigger world the author has created in her novels. The only criticism I have of the layout of this work, at least in the e-version, is that the introduction of the authors comes after the stories, when the ‘teaser’ description of the story and how it relates to their greater works should have come prior to each tale. A minor quibble, but one worth mentioning.
Anthologies are always a mixed bag, and some stories grab you more than others. That is inevitable with such a wide assortment of writing styles, authors, and story types, and such was the case here. I didn’t dislike any of the stories, but a few stood out and will remain with me for quite some time. The aforementioned author’s tales fall into that group, as well as stories by Paul Mannering, Tim Marquiz, Frank Tayell, and Jacqueline Druga. Their stories made the leap from the page into my imagine more so than any of the others. Of course, anyone who enjoys a good zompoc tale will likely find a good primer for a larger series of books by various authors to check out-with traditional slow moving zombies as well as infected and fast moving, talking zombies being found within these pages. And while some of these stories weren’t as compelling as standalones, they did intrigue me enough to perhaps take a closer look at the bigger stories being told.
With future volumes having specific themes, it is more than likely that the stories will be standalone tales of horror rather than shorts tied into a larger saga as was the case here. This is a solid start to a promising anthology series with the proceeds going to a very worthy cause.
At Hell’s Gates can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/At-Hells-Gates-Volume-One/dp/150254539X/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

Review of Donna Burgess’ “Notes From The End Of The World”

Notes From the End of the World follows the exploits of characters Cindy and Nick during the initial days and months of the outbreak of the N-Virus. They are two teenagers who live in a small suburban town in South Carolina facing the onslaught of the dead coming back to life. But not in the way most stories in this genre are introduced, or how they usually proceed. This is more like a slow burn, where the virus creeps into their lives much like the shamblers do in the story.
Cindy and Nick go to the same high school and Nick is dating Cindy’s older, more popular (and stuck up) sister. The story is told in first person, predominantly from Cindy’s perspective, although Nick’s experiences is also shared in various chapters, giving insight into how his world is crumbling alongside Cindy’s. Even Cindy’s older sister shares the spotlight with a few select blog posts scattered throughout the book.
With most zombie apocalypse stories you can categorize them as either initial outbreak tales or sagas of long term survival in the months and years that follow. Some encapsulate both, but generally speaking, those that speak of the initial outbreak are sudden, abrupt, and show the world falling apart within days, if not hours. Not so with Notes From the End of the World. The N-Virus impacts the lives of everyone slowly, over many months, with the world not slipping into darkness overnight, but by dribs and drabs. And as is often the case, we see most people in denial, going about their daily lives even as select members of the population begin wandering the streets, ravenous for flesh. The police routinely deal with these shamblers, and funeral homes have gotten into the new business of setting up facilities where a loved one who has turned can be kept behind fences to be viewed by the living who can’t quite come to grips with reality. Cindy continues to go to school, even as the occasional zombie wanders the campus and less and less of the student body show up every day.
This is a YA zombie story, with Cindy’s unrequited love for Nick taking center stage along with the other heartaches that come from the steady loss of life around her. Initially, she is a volunteer at the local hospital, where the dread that comes with the undead being more prominent. Her father is a doctor who works at the hospital but does his best to shelter his family from the impending reality that the world is slowly, inch by inch, coming to an end.
Though Cindy is in some ways a petulant teenager, her character seems genuine here, in turns accepting the terrible fate that awaits her and everyone she cares about and at other times caught up in the jealousy surrounding Nick’s relationship with her sister and her love for him. At one point in the tale, Cindy is in a class at school when a discussion occurs between the teacher and the few remaining students asking why people are in such denial about the N-Virus and its impact and it is suggested that everyone is going through various stages of coping with grief that typically come from dealing with a long term ailment. But when soldiers indiscriminately start shooting both shamblers and the living who cross their path, it becomes clear to all that nothing will ever be the same again.
While this is a YA tale that focuses on Cindy’s affection for Nick and the difficult relationship she has with her sister, it brings an interesting variation to the telling of the traditional zombie tale that a wider audience should appreciate with the slow, shambling despair that comes with the inevitability of a plague of this magnitude. There is no immediate and harsh dose of reality that comes with an overnight transition from a normal world to the end of times. Instead, like a cancer spreading inch by dreadful inch, there is at various times denial, anger, and depression, with acceptance coming, as it usually does, far too late for most.
While there are some typos and some other grammatical errors here, they don’t distract from the overall enjoyment of this tale. A zombie fan who doesn’t like YA fiction might not be interested with this one, but others should find the author’s take on the advent of the zombie apocalypse rather novel.
Notes From the End of the World can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Notes-End-World-Volume-1/dp/0692300252/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1415559184&sr=8-1

Review of Craig Jones’ “Son of Blood (The Secret of Skerries)”

Son of Blood (The Secret of Skerries) introduces the reader to Martin and his son, who live off the coast of Ireland on a small island with an ancient castle.  The island sits across from the quaint town of Skerries, where the local town folk know of the man and his teenage son, as well as their secret.  Martin has committed himself as protector over the town and is friends with the town’s mayor, who has gained power and wealth due to Martin’s steadfast loyalty and unique talents of keeping undesirables out.

Martin is a vampire.  His son is one too, although he has not fed on the living, and Martin hopes that Christian will never do so.  More than anything, Martin wants to protect his son and has kept him from interacting with the townspeople throughout his life, but much like his father, Christian has fallen for a pretty girl from the town and wants to be more than just the mysterious freak who lives on the island across the way.  The fact that the girl he is interested in is the mayor’s daughter who has friends who despise Christian and his father poses a serious threat him and his father’s peaceful relationship with the town.

Son of Blood could be deemed a young adult paranormal romance with a healthy horror twist to it.  I’ve read some of the author’s other works and he doesn’t shy away from the gore, giving his vamps not only a desire for blood, but flesh as well.  These vamps are far more traditional bloodsuckers than what we have seen as of late in this genre, and Martin, for all his love for his son and desire to shelter him away from the curse that has taken him is truly a monster and a remorseless killer.  He claims to feed on only those who would not be missed, like the destitute and homeless, as if he is doing society a favor by eradicating them, but mixed in with those unfortunates are others who have loved ones who acutely feel their loss.

Martin and Christian’s relationship is by its very nature, strained, but despite the fact that Martin knows he is cursed by his affliction, his only real desire is to do everything he can to make sure Christian does not suffer that same fate.  Of course, that means keeping his away from those who his son might be tempted to feed upon.  Naturally, since Christian has grown into a teenager who has been kept isolated all his life, he is compelled to make connections with others his own age, and in particular with Sinead, the mayor’s daughter, who is as intrigued with him as he is with her.

The story moves at a brisk pace and is an easy read.  The main characters-Martin, Christian, and Sinead, are fairly well developed.  Unfortunately, some of the other minor characters are not as fleshed out.  Owen, the bullying friend of Sinead who despises Christian and thinks of him as a freak, is more or less a stereotype of most teen bullies we’ve seen in other tales, though the forces spurring him to hurt Christian offer up a bit of a twist.

Overall, this is an entertaining tale geared toward an audience who long for vampires with a bit more traditional heft and bite to them than what has been unleashed on the world over the past few years in the young adult genre.  While a teen romance drives this story, it is a far darker tale than we’ve seen and more than likely will grow darker still with future volumes.

Son of Blood (The Secret of Skerries) can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Son-Blood-Secrets-Skerries-Book-ebook/dp/B00MWCPE82/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=1-3&qid=1412733720

Review of Stan Timmon’s “Ammon’s Horn”

Ammon’s Horn sounds like some kind of a mythological creation and while it a term derived from Egyptian mythology, it refers to part of the hippocampus for the purposes of this tale.  It is an area of the brain that is impacted as someone is affected by the ‘noids, or a form of extreme paranoia.

The story introduces us to Danny, a police profiler in Chicago and Gemma, his star reporter fiancé as they start suspecting all is not well in the world.  Multiple reports start filing in of otherwise normal people committing sudden brutal acts of violence and then remembering little to none of them, often shortly before they commit suicide.  Digging deeper leads to a suspicion that these events aren’t just happenstance-a full moon or temporary madness, but something that is getting worse and spreading across the country, creeping from the east coast west toward California, where the President has retreated.  When Gemma reports on it, plenty of people deny its reality, thinking it more groupthink paranoia rather than some sort of brain ailment having an external cause.  She dubs the term ‘noids after a taxi driver, gripped by madness, almost runs over a pregnant woman and said he did it because he was all ‘noided out.

The story follows the initial run ins with the ‘noids that Danny and Gemma suffer through before they travel west at the urging of a mysterious government agent who knows a great deal about what is really happening and what dark secrets are behind this strange plague that has gripped the population.

Ammon’s Horn takes a very different slant on the end of the world, apocalyptic scenario, with its monsters and anyone around them not really knowing what they are; if they are infected or knowing if or when they might snap.  Someone infected with the ‘noids can wreak tremendous havoc and then not remember what happened, leading to even more mayhem when it grips them again.  This story has the flavor of a Stephen King thriller, with deeply drawn main characters that come to life on the page in vivid detail.  The acts of violence are brutal and sudden, perpetrated by people who are, to a great extent, innocent as the brain inside their heads begin to deteriorate and play vile tricks on them.  Danny and Gemma are interesting, well thought out characters, with Danny’s own paranoia at what is happening all around him keeping him guessing as to his own state of mind throughout the story.

This was a well written, intriguing tale with some very compelling twists and turns including a jaw dropping ending that forced me to re-read it more than once to make sure I understood what had just happened.  There are hints and clues throughout that will likely lead to a variant of reader’s paranoia about what is truly happening and who is to blame for the sickness that seems to have gripped everyone in its path.

Ammon’s Horn can be found here:  http://www.amazon.com/Ammons-Horn-Stan-Timmons/dp/161868096X/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1411316061&sr=8-1

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